5G still in the air as spectrum needs are addressed

Author: Michael Newlands
Published: 2015-01-27

With the news that Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University has opened its own 5G Development Centre, it’s safe to say the search for the building blocks of the next-generation of mobile data services is now truly international.

The Chinese-backed research facility is going to be looking into “achieving 5G’s anticipated speeds of up to 800Gbps and thousand-fold increase in capacity.” Or in other words the same things dozens of new government, academic, operator and vendor initiatives around the world are researching.

Since the “Race to 5G” got off the starting blocks about a year ago the initial handful of research projects, one in the UK, one an EU-funded multi-country project and one a Government-funded project in South Korea, have been joined by many more. Everybody who is anybody in the international mobile telecoms industry is now involved in some form or another. Tens of billions of dollars have been pledged for R&D.

But the basic question of what 5G actually is, or rather will be, has not been answered and may well not be for some time to come. Part of the reason for this is because ITU has yet to come out with a definition of 5G, and this will determine if a new air interface is required or if it will simply be an evolution of what already exists.

At least a partial answer is expected at WRC 2015, following three years of work by ITU-R Working Party 5D, and a timeline towards IMT-2020 (the politically-correct way of saying 5G) will be presented. Definition of a new air interface, if there is to be one, is not expected until 2018.

Another question which needs to be asked is if the technologies required to deliver the delights of 5G are now capable of being developed, combined and commercialised before the expected launch of the technology around 2020.

But whatever technological marvels eventuate, there is going to be a need for new spectrum. This is something being addressed at ITU level and in various research projects, but now British regulator Ofcom has taken the bull by the horns and launched the world’s first official consultation on spectrum requirements for 5G (although the FCC in the US has 5G spectrum on its discussion agenda and is looking at bands over 24 GHz).

Ofcom’s consultation is just on the bands over 6 GHz, which are currently not used for mobile communications except for backhaul. An important criterion for Ofcom is contiguous bandwidth of at least 1 GHz, as higher bandwidths will be needed to cope with greatly increased data rates. The regulator has identified nine chunks of suitable spectrum totalling more than 40GHz in bands between 6 GHz and 76 GHz or around 15 times as much as is now being used for 2G, 3G and 4G.

There is a long way to go before we know for certain what 5G is and can do, but having the requisite spectrum identified is a good starting point.

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